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Dave cuts into a rubber tree revealing the latex sap.

Many foods, medicines, and other products come from the Amazon rainforest. One product had a huge impact on the development of the Brazilian Amazon as well as the people that lived there. That product was rubber. The people who worked to tap rubber trees were called seringueiros.

The harvesting of rubber was a major reason for development and economic growth on the Amazon River. In 1842 Charles Goodyear developed a process that made natural rubber more durable. Later, in 1888, John Dunlop invented pneumatic rubber tires. These developments suddenly caused great demand for rubber in the United States and Europe.

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Sap oozes out of a rubber tree just above where several cuts have been made over time.

The rubber tappers (seringueiros) developed trails to many rubber trees in the rainforest. Each seringuiero would have their own area with marked trees that they would tap rubber from every day. Rubber is made from the sap of rubber trees. Getting the sap out of the tree involves cutting into the bark deep enough for the sap to ooze out. Containers would be hung under the cuts to collect the sap. A rubber tapper had to work quickly in the first four hours of the morning, because the sun would cause the sap to thicken and seal off the cut in the tree.

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A seringuero uses a smoldering fire to twirl latex around a paddle forming a pele, or ball of rubber.

The rubber tappers worked under very harsh conditions. Most of them were poor farmers that left their homes in northeast Brazil for the promise of land in the Amazon. Unfortunately, their work was very hard and the people in charge of selling the rubber didn’t pay the seringueiros very much. They would collect only about 10 to 12 pounds of rubber each day. Imagine needing to tap rubber from 100 rubber trees every day in order to get paid!

A seringueiro’s job was not done after just collecting the sap from the rubber trees. He would carry it back to cure it, or heat it over a smokey fire. This causes the sap to become solid. The seringueiro would form the solid rubber into large balls, weighing about 75 pounds.

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In the spring when the rainy season makes tapping impractical, seringueros float their rubber balls down the river to Manaus.

During the rainy season most of the seringueiros’ trails were flooded, making it almost impossible to harvest rubber. The seringueiros used this time to transport their rubber to Manaus. The easiest way to transport the rubber was to float it down river. Rubber would be floated down many rivers in the Amazon Basin: the Maranon, Ucayali, Javari, Madeira, Napo, Putamayo, Caqueta, and Negro rivers from Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, and Colombia. Rubber that was floated down any of these rivers ended up in Manaus, where it could be transported to anywhere else in the world.

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In Manaus, a middleman or aviador splits and sorts the rubber balls by grade.

The city of Manaus, the largest city in the Amazon, developed and prospered thanks to the rubber boom. In fact, it was called the rubber capital of the world! Manaus’ deep-water port was open year round, making it the perfect place for ocean-going ships to come and pick up the rubber.

During the rubber boom, South America was the only place where rubber trees could be found. Eventually, rubber tree seeds were smuggled out of South America and planted in other parts of the world. This combined with the development of synthetic rubber, caused rubber prices to fall in the 1920s. This marked the end of the rubber boom and the time of the seringueiros.

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The aviador then weighs the rubber balls to pay the seringueros.

Manaus is still the largest city in the Amazon, with a population of 2 million people. Although natural rubber is not used as much as it once was, it can still be found in some products. The soles on your shoes and the tires on your parent’s car are made out of synthetic rubber, but airplane tires are one hundred percent natural rubber. Just like the seringueiros, we are making our way downriver to Manaus and we are very excited to see this big city!

Do you know of any other products that are made out of natural rubber?

What are some other products commonly used in the U.S. that come from the rainforest?

Can you imagine the time before rubber was discovered? Imagine life without rubberbands, car tires, flexible shoe soles. . .

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